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Archaeopteryx had (some) black feathers

Archaeopteryx Feather Raab

Archaeopteryx lithographica, fossil single feather found 1861. Photo: H. Raab

A team of scientists announced yesterday the first evidence of feather color in Archaeopteryx, a feathered dinosaur that has also long been considered one of the earliest birds. The first fossil remains, consisting of a single feather, were discovered in Germany in 1861. It’s this single feather that was analyzed using a technique developed by Jakob Vinther, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences.

Comparing microstructures called melanosomes in the fossil to a database of 115 living bird species, the team concluded with 95% certainty the feather was black. That’s not to say that all of it’s feathers were black. It might just as well have had a white body and black wings. Evidence from more complete fossils might give a better picture.

This video from Brown University, academic home of lead author Ryan Carney, suggests the microstructures responsible for black color also made the feathers stronger than other types of feathers, supporting the idea that Archaeopteryx was a true flier and not simply a glider as some have argued.

Over at The Loom blog, Carl Zimmer posted a picture of the lead author’s new tattoo of the lone Archeaopteryx feather. He apparently got inked on his very public forearm before publication of the paper. Does that mean he broke the journal’s embargo?

The report appeared Jan. 24 in the journal Nature Communications. National Geographic, which sponsored part of the work, also did a nice write-up.

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